Wikipedia says that Franz Josef Glacier, together with the Fox Glacier 20 km to the south, is unique in descending from the Southern Alps to less than 300 metres above sea level amidst a lush green temperate rainforest. We had to take their word for it, because everything was wrapped in a thick blanket of grey clouds when we got there.
Well it was time to do some travel planning anyway and we decided to stay at the Top10 holiday park in ‘Franz’ until the clouds disappear. Time enough to get familiar with glacier country and learn that Franz Josef Glacier was named after Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria by German explorer Julius von Haast in 1865. A german explorer naming a cool place after an Austrian emperor?? How did that happen?? The Maori were definitely more creative and called the glacier ‘Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere’ (Tears of the Avalanche Girl). Legend tells of a girl losing her lover who fell from the local peaks, and her flood of tears freezing into the glacier.
At night we went on an expedition to visit the rarest of all Kiwis, the Rowi or Okarito Brown Kiwi, in his natural environment with nature guide Ian Cooper. Imagine 8 clumsy tourists stumbling along a dark forrest path and then waiting motionless for what felt like hours trying to catch a glimpse of a chicken sized bird while the mosquitoes were having a feast 🙂 But thanks to Ian and his telemetry equipment we finally did hear and see a pair of the elusive little birds in the wild and felt like proud explorers on the way home … nether the less we also went into the Kiwi wildlife centre at Franz Josef village the next day to get a real close up look of these funny little birds in a nocturnal bird house.
Sadly the Okarito Brown Kiwi (like many other indigenous bird species in New Zealand) is on the brink of extinction due to immigrated stouts, possums, cats and dogs wreaking havoc in the local bird population. Not even the millions of stout and possum traps you’ll find across New Zealand’s national parks or regular roadkill seem to significantly decrease their numbers. It’s only thanks to the relentless efforts of DOC and the Kiwi wildlife centre that the number of Rowi in the wild increased from 200 to 375 in recent years. Volunteers are hatching the eggs in the centre and rearing young ones on secluded and pest free offshore islands before releasing them back in the wild when they are big enough to defend themselves against most predators.
On our ‘lazy day’ we also did a short walk to the bottom of Franz Josef glacier and were surprised/disappointed/shocked by how far the glacier has retreated over the last few decades. And who would have thought that a glacier looks that … dirty … up close and personal with all that rock gravel covering the dirty thick ice? Not exactly what we thought a glacier would look like and certainly nothing like the pictures in brochures.
And then on our second day in ‘Franz’ we woke up to a bright blue sky and it was time for our heli-hike to Franz Josef glacier:
After our glacier adventure we enjoyed the complimentary entrance to the Glacier Hot Pools before leaving Franz Josef village en route to Fox glacier.